Partner Edit: 1


This exercise is taken from the Artful Edit by Susan Bell.

The practice of partner editing improves self-editing because it trains you to see textual details and interpret their effect on a piece of writing. It obliges a clear mind and the clear expression of your editorial ideas.

Susan Bell


  1. Choose a partner––a writer not necessarily working in the same genre or style as you.
  2. Exchange a small batch of writing [in this case 5 pages].
  3. Micro-edit your partner’s pages, working through the following checklist:

1: Tenses, tenses, tenses: Make sure your partner is using a consistent narrative tense. Read through carefully, and make sure every verb is correct.

2: Tenses again: Are you using progressive tenses when you don’t need to?

Progressive past: He was reading… Simple past: He read…

Progressive present: He is reading… Simple present: He reads…

2b: Just avoid the participle (…ing verbs) if you can. Walking, reading, sitting, et al. 

3: Adverbs: Try to avoid adverbs. Instead combine the adverb with the verb it modifies.

He read carefully

Could become: He studied…

She ran quickly…

Could become: She sprinted/ dashed/ trotted…

He ate greedily…

Could become: He gorged/ gobbled/ guzzled

4: Began to…Started to… Continued to… Sometimes you need them. Mostly you don’t.

5: Filters. If you say any of the following about your viewpoint character:

He felt… He saw… He heard… He sensed… then you are using filters. Try to cut them.

IN the following examples Tom is the main character:

Tom felt a sinking feeling in his stomach…Becomes: Tom’s stomach sank…

Tom saw Jane walking along the street…Becomes: Jane walked along the street…

Tom heard a saxophone playing from a window…A saxophone played from a window…

It’s more direct, more compact, more concise.

6: Using As to link two events:

Tom put down his book as he got out of bed… 

Did the two events really happen at the same time? Maybe they did, and you are okay, but what if they didn’t?

Tom got out of bed and put down his book…


Tom put down his book and got out of bed…

If you connect two actions with ‘as’ you imply that they happened at the same time.

Did they really happen at the same time?

If not, then use ‘and’ or ‘then.’

For example, a student attempting to make their character active might write something like:

Saying, “Good-bye,” Julia closed the door as she walked down the stairs.

Now, Julia might have done these three things simultaneously, but it’s more likely that she did them 1..2..3..

Julia said, “Good-bye,” closed the door and walked down the stairs.

As always there’s room for exceptions. Julia might be one of those characters who specialize in multi-tasking, and everything time we see her she’s does three things simultaneously, and in a previous scene we’ve seen her brushing her teeth, while she puts on her socks and texts Amanda that she’s going to late to Emily’s party…

(But note that the conjunction ‘as’ was still not used).

It’s one of those ‘go-big-or-go-home’ scenarios. 

On her way to Emily’s party, Julia will pull out into traffic, while lighting a cigarette, taking a sip of her latte, texting Amanda, and putting in her contact lens…

Of course, in all likelihood Julia will not get to Emily’s party.

7: Favor active rather than passive sentences, in other words begin with the subject.

For example:

Standing by the window was Tom’s Uncle.

The subject of this little sentence is Tom’s Uncle, so in order for the sentence to be direct we should say:

Tom’s uncle was standing by the window.

Or better still:

Tom’s uncle stood by the window.

Although, ‘stood’ is a weak verb. Could we use a verb that will reveal something about Tom’s uncle?

Tom’s uncle posed by the window…

Tom’s uncle stood on one leg by the window…

Tom’s uncle stood on his head by the window?


Tom’s uncle crouched by the window…?

Now…sometimes a passive sentence can provide more variety and suspense than an active one: 

It would be fine to say:

Tom’s uncle crouched in a pool of moonlight at the far end of the drawing room…

But it would be more unsettling to say:

There, at the far end of the drawing room, in pool of moonlight, crouched old Uncle Septimus. Tom was tempted to ignore him, and go back to sleep, although Uncle Septimus had died of tuberculosis sometime during the Nixon administration, and Tom wondered if this visitation might be important…

A guideline might be: try to make 4 out of 5 sentences active. If you have 2 or 3 passive sentences in a row, then it’s going to drag and muddy your narrative. On the other hand one passive sentence in the midst of a sequence of active sentences could provide a pleasing change of rhythm.

8: Dialogue formatting: comma before a tag (or a ! or ? acting as a comma).

Use basic copyediting symbols as well as written comments.

  1. Exchange your pages back again. Read the results carefully.
  2. Take turns to discuss the edits. Try not to be defensive. If your partner seems to have misunderstood part of your story, is it because your partner is a poor reader––or is the problem with what you’ve written?